After spending thirty-five years in the design profession in New York, Bill Shaffer made the decision to change the focus of his career. He took a leap and returned to grad school and earned an M.A. in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies from Parsons, The New School in 2017. He has worked as a Research Assistant for Paul Goldberger on his latest book, Ballpark: Baseball in The American City, (Knopf, 2019) and for Laura Auricchio's contribution to A True Friend of The Cause: Lafayette and the Antislavery Movement, (Grolier Club, 2016). He conducts historical research and writes about issues of architecture and design for authors and design consultancies. The Scandalous Hamiltons, about a Gilded Age scandal involving the descendants of Alexander Hamilton, founding father. Although the case dominated newspaper reporting for quite a while then, it is little known today. The book is set to be published July 26, 2022.
1. How and when did you get hooked on history?
My father loved to learn about history. When I was a kid and our family went on vacation, we always pulled over to read historical markers on the side of a road and almost every trip involved stopping at least one historical museum. Every description card in a given exhibit was read in its entirety before moving to the next one. So there wasn’t one particular moment or event that got me hooked, it was more by osmosis.
2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
The interest I developed in history at an early age has carried through to the present day. I am now the dad who pulls over to read historical markers on the side of the road and plans a stop in at least one historical museum when on vacation.
3. How does history play a part of your professional life/career?
History has made an enormous change in my professional life. Whereas the study of history was previously of general interest to me, it is now how I make my living. The research, writing, and publication of The Scandalous Hamiltons marks a profound shift in how I spend my days, the people I meet (such as yourself), and the opportunities I now have. I am deeply appreciative and grateful about all of this.
4. Why is studying/knowing history important?
History informs us. Things that occur today can appear to be new, but often times we can go back in history and find parallels to a current situation. One example from The Scandalous Hamiltons: Advocates for both Ray and Eva used the media to push their particular side of the story in the divorce proceedings and eventual settlement of his estate. These advocates’ motivation was not necessarily to sway a legal outcome, but to “win” in the court of public opinion. We learn about scandals today in a much broader array of media outlets, but the premise of media manipulation is the same. Ray and Eva are a cautionary tale to, perhaps, not take everything that one sees or hears in the news at face value.
5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
I have always been interested in the events of the 1760-80s that led to the formation of this country. There are some incredible individuals, both virtuous and flawed, who advanced the cause of independence. And there is still a largely untold history regarding slavery and race relations that continues to have ramifications today.
6. What attracted you to the subject of The Scandalous Hamiltons?
I live on the Upper west Side of Manhattan – four blocks from my apartment building is the Hamilton Fountain. It is not large and is located in a fairly obscure location at the end of 76th Street and Riverside Drive. When I discovered that it was designed by Warren & Wetmore, designers of Grand Central Terminal and one of the most influential architectural firms of the early twentieth century, I asked myself why architects of that stature would be involved in this relatively unknown project.
My attempt to answer that question led to a broad awareness of Ray and Eva’s tumultuous relationship. The more I dug into it, the more fascinating the story became. I thought that surely someone had a written a book about it – when I realized that no one had, I decided to do so.
7. The Gilded Age seems to be having a moment now with books, movies, and tv series. What is the source of the fascination that we have for the time?
The Gilded age produced so many names that are still familiar today: Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Astor, etc. We still marvel at their mansions, art collections and other opulent displays of wealth. Beyond that, though, the Gilded Age represents the timeless division of haves and have-nots. Ray and Eva (to me, at least) quintessentially represent these two polar extremes.
At the same time that the robber barons were amassing spectacular fortunes, new waves of immigrants were packed cheek-to-jowl in tenement buildings. Some of the have-nots used the lives of the rich as an example to better their own, but many were unable to imagine the prosperity on display. The social and cultural divide created by such disparity also provided fuel for a new generation of artists and writers to highlight the differences between the moneyed class and those who were just scraping by.